We have all seen it in the movies. The main character has a charmed life that we all want ourselves. Then, something tragic happens, and he (or she) wrongfully ends up in prison. While he (or she) works hard to survive in prison, he (or she) meets someone who is sympathetic. Over time, we learn that this sympathetic person is a jailhouse informant trying to trap our main character. As soon as all seems lost, everything works out in the end.
Okay, so that is not the best movie synopsis, but you at least pictured something you have seen before. Sadly, this movie plot is not entirely fictional. The use of jailhouse informants, while wildly controversial, is still a reality.
What Is a Jailhouse Informant?
A jailhouse informant is a prisoner who is willing to testify against another prisoner – usually in detention while awaiting trial. The jailhouse informant, in return for his testimony, usually receives some form of benefit, which includes a reduced sentence, a financial reward, and other options.
As one might expect, this is controversial. The testimony of one prisoner, likely already convicted of a crime, is being used against another prisoner awaiting trial. For that reason, their use has been challenged. For example, in 1972, Giglio v. United States and other subsequent rulings made it so that the use of jailhouse informants and their rewards have to be disclosed to the defense.
Why Are Jailhouse Informants Controversial?
Jailhouse informants are controversial because of the number of wrongful convictions to which they have led. According to The Innocence Project, 130 convictions in the United States have been determined to be wrongful, and jailhouse informants were part of the testimony that contributed to this result.
One such conviction was highlighted by National Public Radio last year. Bruce Lisker found his mom dead at the age of 17. When police began to investigate, they quickly focused their investigation on him. He was put into jail, and an informant testified that he had confessed to the crime in prison. That testimony was used to put him in jail for 26 years until it was determined that he was innocent.
Is the Use of Jailhouse Informants a Problem?
Sometimes, you hear cases in which prosecutors hire “experts” to help them establish evidence in a trial. For instance, there are forensic scientists who will testify at hundreds of trials about being able to trace a particular bullet to a particular gun. This blog wrote last year about how there were “experts” who would testify to the accuracy of dental imprints in evidence. These “experts” exist across all kinds of forensic evidence.
Something similar can exist for jailhouse informants. There is no limit to the number of times a jailhouse informant can testify. In Orange County, California, the district attorney and the sheriff’s offices are being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). They are being accused of using “an elaborate scheme to violate defendants’ constitutional rights through a secret network of jailhouse informants.” Professional jailhouse informants are a reality, and it would be foolish to assume that they are only used to this extent in Orange County.
One word that frequently comes up is justice. Prosecutors should want the guilty found guilty and the innocent found not guilty. If someone is guilty, they can, and should, use all of their options at their disposal to be successful at their work.
Trusting in the validity of jailhouse informants is risky when seen through the lens of justice. When they are used, it becomes even more important to find a defense attorney who knows how to work for you. Call or email today for a free consultation.
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